The newly discovered type of photosynthesis could help us survive on darker alien worlds. It also redefines the metrics we use for identifying potentially inhabited exoplanets.
An international team of researchers from Londons Imperial College found out that Cyanobacteria from freshwater lakes can produce phytochemicals (organic compounds) and oxygen through the use of infra-red light instead of the known visible spectrum.
Photosynthesis is the process by which a plant converts light, or compounds like carbon dioxide and water in to oxygen and phytochemicals (organic compounds found in plants.)
The same capability was discovered in bacteria growing at Yellowstone, on an Australian beach and a small cupboard in England.
Up until now scientists thought that plants required a green pigment called chlorophyl-a which converts visible red light in to oxygen and organic compounds. In fact scientists currently use this staple of Earthly plant life to determine if a planet is inhabited.
However when these cyanobacteria were exposed instead to infra-red light – that part of the invisible electromagnetic spectrum below the colour red another process, called chlorophyll-f switched on and began converting energy all the same.
Since bacteria only need light to survive we can actually use this newly discovered process to help terraform other planets which receive less light than ours/ It also rewrites our approach to exoplanets because if bacteria don’t need the visible spectrum then we can expand our search for alien life to encompass more spectral signatures.
One potentially promising location for terraforming is Mars – which has carbon dioxide, water and exists further away from the sun. Perhaps Elon Musk would be well suited to bring a sample or two on his giant rocket ships built for colonization?